Nestled on the bank of the Illinois River, the small community of Meredosia, Illinois sits sixty-five miles west of the state capitol. In 1955, National Starch and Chemical built a plant there and has been a key employer for this community of about a thousand people. A producer of adhesives, National Starch was generally considered a good corporate citizen in the community.
Although labor relations between the union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Local 484, and National Starch could be contentious, the union was always able to achieve fair contracts for the 150 — 200 employees it represented. In the fifty-year history of the plant, the union had only gone on strike once. With harmonious labor relations, National Starch proved also to be a profitable company. In 2003, it posted operating profits of $18 million.
In late 2004, when National Starch agreed to sell the Meredosia plant to the Celanese Corporation, life changed for the workers — and for this small town.
The Celanese Corporation is a chemical company that operates in North America, Europe, and Asia. Based in Dallas and owned by the Blackstone Group, it markets itself as a “low-cost producer.” Its board of directors features powerful figures including former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neil. Celanese sales exceeded $5 billion in 2004. It announced its second quarter “operating profit rose significantly to $152 million versus $25 million last year.”
A new company brochure on its website says, “We strive to exceed the expectations of our customers, shareholders, employees and stakeholders.”
But Celanese has done anything but exceed the expectations of its employees in Meredosia.
Upon acquiring the plant, Celanese immediately took up contract negotiations with the Boilermakers union. From the outset, Celanese demanded health care cuts and changes in the workers’ pension. On June 3, union negotiators pushed for additional information on these concessions, although they believed they were near an agreement with the company.
|Click on any of the images and watch the documentary Lockout 484 (directed by Laura Vazquez and Rosemary Feurer; photographed by Greg Boozell and Jim Hade; and music by Anne Feeney).
Two days later, 150 union members were stunned to learn they had been locked out.
“We negotiated with the company for weeks prior to the lockout, believing we were close to a tentative agreement,” says Boilermakers Local 484 President Kelly Street. “Celanese imposed the lockout to inflict hardship on our members.”
The company demanded that its offer be put directly to the union members, who soundly rejected it, 145 to 2, on June 15. On July 6, the company added demands to cut wages by $4 to $6 an hour, as well as eliminate thirty-seven maintenance and utility jobs.
“We agreed to concessions in the negotiations,” says Paul Craig, secretary-treasurer of Boilermakers Local 484. “And as soon as they came back, they weren’t satisfied and they would ask for more.” The union has filed charges against Celanese for unfair bargaining.
Celanese representatives deny that it has ramped up its demands for concessions in the bargaining process, claiming its goal is to make pay and benefits “on par” with its other plants.
“The prevailing market for the skill sets of the workers Celanese employs is lower than the wages currently being paid to the Meredosia union workers,” explains plant manager, John Lakenan.
“I really don’t think the company cares if it ends,” says Craig. “It’s a short term loss for a long term gain. They can outwait us. Their long term gain is if they can crush the union, then they can do as they want. And they will reduce wages down and they will reduce benefits and pensions. And the people won’t have a voice.” Not even over safety issues such as work with chemical carcinogens. Says Craig, “You’ll handle them or you’ll go home.”
Support for the locked-out workers within the community is widespread and deeply felt. Throughout the small town, signs of support and solidarity are prominently displayed in store windows, on lawns, and in vehicles.
The majority of local businesses support the locked-out workers. Many also refuse to do business with replacement workers.
“It’s been hard on the business,” says Nancy Dawson, owner of the River’s Edge Barber Shop. “I give a lot of free hair cuts. But they’ve supported my husband and me when we have been laid off.”
Residents are also very concerned about untrained replacement workers conducting dangerous operations within the chemical plant.
“They’re bringing inexperienced workers into a chemical plant,” says Travis Davidson. “If they mess something up, it’s us they’re affecting, the entire town. How can you do that to somebody? How can you do that to a community?”
Celanese successfully obtained a court order to severely curtail picketing or demonstrations of community support outside the plant. Issued by Judge Richard T. Mitchell, the injunction limits the number of picketers to no more than six. Further, picketers are not allowed to engage in any behavior at the picket line which may be construed as intimidating replacement workers. One union member was charged with violating the injunction because he cussed at scab workers. The charge was subsequently dropped.
Celanese hired Special Response Corporation to conduct “security” during the lockout. Employing former law enforcement and military personnel, the company touts itself as “North America’s most trusted specialists in protecting personnel and property during strikes, labor disputes and other potentially dangerous workplace situations.”
The security force routinely videotapes any worker at the picket line. Further, anyone visiting the picket line is met and asked for identification. During my visit, I was informed that, while I would be allowed to videotape, the court injunction prohibited me from using a tripod.
When questioned on this later, Chief Deputy Sheriff, Randy Duvendack, said he was unaware of any such prohibition. The injunction actually does not mention tripods, although it does say you cannot hit golf balls at vehicles.
Intimidation tactics extend beyond the plant premises and into the town of Meredosia itself. Workers repeatedly complain of invasion of privacy and harassment by Special Response personnel. These Celanese provocateurs regularly patrol the streets of Meredosia, videotaping union members and their families in public or even in their own back yards.
“For some reason the security that Celanese has hired feels the need to videotape our houses, videotape our children in the yard,” says Steve Floyd, a locked-out worker. “We see them twice a day at the minimum. Most of the times it’s every three to four hours they’ll come through. You know its a slow street but they’ll come through excessively slow so it’s not like they’re just passing through. They’re coming down with a purpose.”
Plant manager, John Lakenan confirms that. Special Response Corporation is monitoring people “who have harassed replacement workers or other Celanese employees,” he says.
The union also accuses the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department of providing on-duty deputies to Celanese for $70 an hour to police union members.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Duvendack justified the practice stating that policing the conflict “was very draining on our department.”
Tim Davidson, a locked-out worker, finds irony in the situation. “Here you got the Bush administration that’s got our boys over there in Iraq and Afghanistan, supposedly to protect our freedoms,” he says. “And yet we can’t get protection down here to protest, to come down here and picket. Our local law enforcement is treating us like criminals. They’re on Celanese’s payroll. How can they talk about freedom? It’s ridiculous.”
To support the locked-out workers, go to www.boilermakers484.org and www.lockout484.
To donate to the Solidarity/Defense Fund set up to help the families locked out by Celanese, send your check or money order to:
Click here to donate to the Solidarity/Defense Fund online.
Call Celanese’s corporate ethics hotline at 1-866-ETHICCE (1-866-384-4223) and demand that Celanese bargain with the workers.
Contact Governor Rod Blagojevich (217-782-0244 or 312-814-2121) and ask him to demand that Celanese bargain with the workers.
Greg Boozell is a documentary filmmaker and board member of the San Lucas Workers Center. This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of The Progressive.